Does Russia already possess the successor models to its S-500 missile defense system? During an appearance at a Russian talk show in 2018, Vladimir Zhirinovsky—a prominent Russian lawmaker and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party—offered what, at the time, seemed like a stunning revelation concerning Russian military capabilities: “The Americans are afraid that the entire world will see that the Russian S-300 system is the best in the world. And we also have the S-400, S-500, S-600 and S-700! We can cover the entire planet, and not a single warplane will be able to take off!”
The host, Russian pundit Vladimir Solovyov, joked that Zhirinovsky should be careful not to disclose all of the top government secrets at once: “What if you tell us about the terrible S-1500 system that we know nothing about,” he said. But Zhirinovsky continued, further divulging the prospective S-700’s capabilities: “It will shoot down every missile right at the launch site,” he assured an incredulous audience, according to a story by Russia Today.
These comments were received with skepticism by most western observers, and for good reason. Zhirinovsky has long been a bombastic force in Russian politics, cultivating a reputation for his occasionally eccentric views and heated confrontations with politicians from opposing parties. The veteran politician, who participated in Russia’s presidential elections a record six times and peaked at 9.5% of the vote in 2008, is known for his hawkish stances vis-à-vis Poland, the Baltic states, and the United States. His more exotic policy proposals include a weight cut-off of no more than 80 kg (176 lbs) for government officials, as well as shooting down migrating birds from Turkey to curb the spread of Avian flu.
Still, there was some scattered speculation that Zhirinovsky may have accidentally revealed classified information about upcoming Russian military hardware. So, where do things stand in 2021? Over two years later, there is no sign that Russia’s military possesses any successor systems to the upcoming S-500.
Perhaps Zhirinovsky was trying to convey not that Russia has these systems right now, but that it could develop them with relative ease in the coming years or decades. In any case, there is a grain of truth here. As with any complex, iterative military hardware project, multiple generations of a given product are planned well in advance. Take, for instance, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) three-tiered research, development, and production cycle: “China’s tradition is to have one generation in service, a new one in development and a next-generation under study,” a Beijing-based military expert told Chinese media.
There is no doubt that Russia’s defense sector is already seriously thinking about the next generations of Russian missile defense capabilities, and perhaps even testing early versions of certain prototype components. But these efforts, to the extent that they exist, are likely in an incipient state. With the S-500—an advanced missile defense platform reportedly capable of intercepting hypersonic cruise missiles and aerial objects flying at speeds of up to Mach five—not expected to enter service in significant quantities until the mid-2020s, it could be decades until the S-500’s successors see the light of day.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.